By Iain MacIntyre
September 21, 2016
The coach on everyone’s first-to-be-fired list this season is on his way to Whistler this afternoon for training camp. Willie Desjardins will recognize the road — all twists and dips and blind corners.
The Vancouver Canucks were careful never to say the R-word last season when they crashed like a meteor over the final 2½ months and finished with their worst National Hockey League record since the 1990s. But the obviousness of their rebuild and prioritization of player development was confirmed when Desjardins, in an exclusive interview Tuesday, identified the difference between last season and this one.
Winning, he said, is like a straight road. Even if the playoffs are over the horizon, you know the destination is straight ahead and, singularly focused, you do everything you can to travel there. But Desjardins said player development is a blind road full of curves, where you don’t always know where you are going. And wondering where you’re heading makes a lot of people question the journey.
Player development is the Sea to Sky Highway. A winning vision is a road on the Prairies that aims straight to the horizon. Desjardins, a coach who grew up in Climax, Sask., and had never missed the playoffs at any level in North America, knows a straight line simplifies everything. And that is the difference for the Canucks this season.
“That’s the biggest thing, the number 1 thing,” Desjardins said on the eve of training camp. “For everybody, not just the players. The road is a clear road.
“The stage our team is in … it’s a touchy subject. Whenever you get into that discussion between development and winning, those are such polarizing subjects for everybody. I think the key to winning is having a vision and having a straight line. Knowing exactly where you want to go, it’s much easier to get there for everybody. It’s when (the line) goes back and forth, that’s where you can lose your way a little bit.”
Desjardins said he thought his players’ passion waned late last season as losses mounted. But after exit interviews with players, he realized it was the vision that had been the problem.
Too many players just couldn’t see where the organization was going.
The lineup included two 19-year-olds — neither was ready to play a full season in the NHL — and one of them seemed to lose every key faceoff he was sent out to take.
Rookie defenceman Ben Hutton logged top-four minutes, second-year centre Bo Horvat was sacrificed in matchups against the best centres in the NHL, untried goalie Jacob Markstrom played every second game down the stretch, when the defence included a mysterious Russian giant named Nikita Tryamkin, and nine different Canucks played their first NHL games.
So if you’re a veteran player and see all that, where would you think your team was going?
“Last year, there were times people wondered: Why is this line starting in the offensive zone?” Desjardins said. “Maybe some guys are going: ‘This guy hasn’t won a draw and you’re putting him out there again?’ But you have to develop. We had to go through that year where we made development (a priority).
“If you look at a guy like Sven Baertschi, if our total focus is just on (winning) and he’s struggling, he probably doesn’t get to play and we lose him. We lose him. I truthfully think, in a strange sense, we had a good year for getting where we need to be. The ice time Tryamkin got at the end of the year, Horvat having to go against all the big guys, Baertschi getting to play, Hutton making the team, Jake (Virtanen) staying with the team, Markstrom getting to play down the stretch. There’s no part of me that thinks losing is good, but we got some things done that we needed to last year.
“This year, it’s a different story. Our road is way straighter, way straighter. Our vision now is in a line and all the players, all of us, are accountable to that vision. As much as people thought last year was a wasted year, there were a lot of good things that came out of that. Now we have put those good things in place this year.”
With the recovery from serious injuries of top defenceman Alex Edler and key centre Brandon Sutter, the additions of first-line winger Loui Eriksson and rugged, second-pairing blue-liner Erik Gudbranson, competition at the bottom of the lineup and that season of development for the Canucks’ young players, Desjardins said the team is equipped to take a straight shot back to the playoffs.
He also knows that many of you are guffawing at what you just read.
The Canucks will need to be at least 18-20 points better to return to the Stanley Cup tournament.
More people will pick the Canucks to fire their coach than make the playoffs.
“I really don’t listen to what’s going on,” he said of his overheated market. “What would that do for me? It wouldn’t do anything. I’m really confident with our group. I’m really confident in myself as a coach. I know what we did right my first year and I know, in my mind, where things went wrong last year. I’m excited about where we’re going this year.
“All those young guys are ready to get better. Every one of them is ready to push. And we’ve got way more depth. Every night will be that way. And that just changes your whole lineup. It changes everything. I have to make sure the guys understand what we’re doing and where we’re going.”
Full speed, just following the hood ornament straight ahead.